Last revised: March 13, 1999
Part Nine: A Writer's Tools
by Lawrence Watt-Evans
So you want to be a writer. You've written a story, and you're showing it to your friends. One of them points out, "You misspelled 'kumquat' here."
Another says, "I think your grammar is wrong here."
If you react with, "So what? Fixing that is the editor's job," think again.
It's not. It's your job.
That's not what editors are for.
Once upon a time, when the average American was a semi-literate farmer, an editor's job might have been to spot raw talent in the rough and polish it, weeding out infelicities of prose, but these days that's not how it works.
Editors don't have the time to do that.
Quick note: A friend of mine was a junior editor for a major publisher in New York. He recently quit to become a freelance comic book scripter. I chatted with him about this, and asked whether he'd really save enough by moving out of New York to justify the cut in income.
"What cut in income?" he asked.
I pointed out that the way he'd described his situation, the most he could possibly make freelancing would be about $30,000 a year.
Turns out that's a lot more than he made as an editor.
I don't know just what editors are paid, but it ain't much.
And they're overworked, too. Horribly overworked. Most slush-reading isn't done at the office; the work day is entirely consumed by meetings with art directors, marketing people, agents, etc. Slush-reading is done on the subway, riding to and from work, or at home on weekends, with kids climbing all over.
So suppose you're an editor with two manuscripts in front of you. Both are first novels. Both are decent, but nothing all that exciting; there's some originality and charm there, but no earthshaking innovations or brilliant prose. The editor neither gagged nor wept for joy upon reading them.
One, however, is neatly typed, with very few misspellings and virtually every sentence properly composed and grammatically correct. The author even used the subjunctive correctly in Chapter Six.
The other is neatly typed, but the author has misspelled an average of ten words a page, and consistently has trouble with some basic point of grammar, like agreement of number (i.e., making the nouns and verbs consistent in whether they're singular or plural). Someone would need to go through and fix it up.
Now, given that you have about five minutes a day for actual editing, which one are you going to buy?
Easy choice, isn't it?
Any sane editor is going to say, "They don't pay me enough to wade through bad grammar and misspellings," and take the other one.
Now, if a book is absolutely brilliant, it's going to get bought anyway. Raymond E. Feist can't spell worth a damn, but nobody cares, to name one example, because his books make the bestseller lists after they're cleaned up. It's worth the expense of hiring a copy editor. (Which is what happens. The in-house editor doesn't do the cleaning up; a freelance copy editor is hired to do it.)
Well, you say, my stuff is good enough to justify that!
How do you know?
You can't judge your own work; you're too close to it, you'll see all the little nuances that will glide right by someone who hasn't lived your life. So why make life hard for yourself?
Learn to spell. If you can't, get a good spell-checker.
Learn grammar. Sure, it was boring in school, but it doesn't have to be. Get a copy of a slim little book called Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, and read it--you'll enjoy it, honest, and you'll probably learn more than you did in years of English classes.
Read a lot, especially older stuff. Do not just read SF or fantasy. If you ask SF writers who their favorite authors are, yes, some will say Heinlein or Tolkien--but they'll also name Mark Twain and William Shakespeare and Ernest Hemingway and Jane Austen, and my own picks include C.S. Forester and Rex Stout. Science fiction and fantasy do not contain the sum total of human wisdom or good writing. They don't even come close.
The English language is your toolbox as a writer, your instrument. You won't see Eric Clapton making records playing on a $45 guitar from Sears; you won't see a good woodcarver working with a chipped steak knife. A good craftsman uses the best tools available, or at least the best he can afford, and uses them properly. You don't work marble using a screwdriver for a chisel--you go out and get a good chisel.
Use your tools properly. Use words properly.
This emphatically does not mean to use the biggest, fanciest words you can find. The point of writing is to communicate, and clarity is infinitely more important than erudition. You don't drive a nail with a big fancy polishing machine, you use a hammer.
Bureaucrats and lawyers use lots of big words; Dr. Seuss uses none. Which would you rather read, a government document or The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins? (If you pick the government document, you'll never be a writer.)
Of course, bureaucrats use words badly, while Dr. Seuss uses them very well indeed--and that's the difference.
Never use a word if you're not sure of its meaning. Never use a big word where a little one will do, unless it's necessary to a particular effect--such as making a character look stupid and pompous by putting such words in his dialogue.
The most powerful words are the short ones.
Consider these examples:
Which one is better writing? Which communicates more clearly? Which has a more powerful emotional impact?
This doesn't mean that big words have no place; merely that that place is not filling in for a perfectly good short word. Long words are generally more specific than short ones; using them can convey information quickly, and can set a particular mood nicely, but don't drag them in where they aren't needed.
The same goes for adjectives and adverbs. Useful tools--but not needed everywhere.
Some of you may not like the tool metaphor. Some of you may still not think that it's important to know how to use words correctly. Maybe you've read Damon Runyon, who breaks just about every rule in the book, deliberately and with malice aforethought, or James Joyce, who doesn't just break the rules but shatters them into little pieces, and you don't see why you can't do the same.
Because you aren't Damon Runyon or James Joyce, that's why.
Yes, some writers break all the rules and get away with it--but before they did that, they knew all the rules first. They knew when and why they were breaking rules, and just how to do it.
After you've proven you can follow the rules, then you can think about breaking them.
Maybe Eric Clapton would play that cheap guitar on stage--as a stunt, to prove it could be done. But if he'd always played one, he never would have gotten far enough for anyone to listen to him.
So if you want to write, learn the rules. Learn spelling, grammar, and style. Learn to type, while you're at it.
When you've learned all that, and understand what you're doing, then you can get creative.
Writing is a craft. There may be art in it, as well, but it's a craft first. Picasso didn't start out a cubist; he learned to draw first, as realistically as anybody. You learn the craft, and let the art take care of itself.
All contents and referenced pages are copyright by Lawrence Watt Evans except as noted.
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